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Vice-Chancellor news

Vice-Chancellor’s all-staff email – October 2017

31 October 2017

Dear colleague

Earlier this month we learned that the Welsh Government has decided to retain the existing fee level of £9,000 rather than to allow it rise with inflation as had been originally announced earlier in the year. Mrs May had announced a similar decision for England at the Conservative conference, although the fee there has already had one inflationary increase to £9,250 and so will be frozen at that slightly higher level pending a review of student funding and support. We have already had our review of course, and so we will have to await the outcome of the English process to be able to see what the consequences for Wales might be. In the meantime the Welsh Government has provided an extra £26 million for universities over the next three years which will help mitigate the loss of future fee income. Those of you who attended my all-staff addresses in October (available online here) will know that after I had spoken, our new Chief Financial Officer, Mr Rob Williams, gave a presentation on the financial position of the University, which showed us in a strong financial state, although of course we will have to be prudent and manage our expenditure and revenue carefully. We do have one or two constrained years ahead, but I am confident that we will be able to negotiate them successfully whilst achieving our strategic aims. I devoted my address this time to the new Way Forward, which covers the period 2018-23. The official launch is not until January 2018, but you can see the text and an accompanying explanatory document here, and a final summary report on the previous Way Forward period will be made available before the end of this calendar year.

As has been our past practice, we will provide regular updates on progress and you will be able to contribute to the formation of the action plans that will help us turn strategy into action. The new Way Forward is the product of two years of consultation, and I would like that approach to continue as time goes on. Producing a document is merely a staging post along the road of realising our plans for the University; it’s part of a process, not an end in itself. In future emails I’ll return to different aspects of The Way Forward to explain more about the key performance indicators, why they were chosen and how we intend to put them into practice, but this time I will focus on Civic Mission, which is one of the five themes of The Way Forward is Civic Mission (the others being Education and Students, Research, Innovation and International).

Civic Mission is the activity formerly known as Engagement, and embraces all our outreach and community work. The Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams, gave a speech at Cardiff University in 2016 in which she called upon universities in Wales to re-energise our commitment to Civic Mission, which does indeed form a key strategic strand in The Way Forward 2018-23. Essentially, we aim to help improve the health, wealth and well-being of the people of Wales, in the awareness that events since the EU referendum have given greater emphasis to the need to be better connected to our communities. We are committed to helping to improve the quality of education in Wales, to promoting social cohesion through a programme of targeted outreach via partnership with the NHS to help improve public health outcomes, to ensuring we make a positive contribution to the development of the Welsh language, to increasing the scale and scope of our relationships with Welsh businesses, third sector and public organisations, and to supporting the creation of 1,000 high value jobs in the Welsh economy. It is very important that we make a difference to the people of our country, especially given the tax-payer support we receive, and so I was pleased to be asked by the Welsh Government to host a Civic Mission summit, which took place on 25 October under the title Civic Mission Wales: Connecting campus, community and the world. It was extremely well attended and featured a keynote speech by Kirsty Williams, in which she re-affirmed the role of universities in helping to raise educational standards in schools, to developing active citizenship and acting as the engine of social enterprise and innovation. I want to see Cardiff University at the heart of this activity in Wales and I’m confident that our plans will make that happen.

Before moving on to some campus news I just want to reference briefly a couple of announcements made this month by Jo Johnson, the UK government Minister for Universities and Science. At the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s final annual conference before it is abolished next April, Jo Johnson referred to the importance of working with industry on innovation (as we do extensively of course), saying that he intended to introduce a Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) to complement the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). I can see the sense of this in some ways; knowledge exchange (or innovation, or technology transfer; there are multiple terms) is notoriously difficult to track and measure, and this new framework might prove a useful tool. On the downside it will create further work and bureaucracy, however good the intentions to keep it light touch might be. Ignoring it might be an option for us here in Wales, but there is always the danger that it could start feeding into important league tables, or that staying out might have reputational consequences. It’s difficult to know until we receive further detail, but we will have to consider it seriously when that happens. The other matter relates to free speech, which is of course an extremely important but rather complex issue for us and indeed for the government. Jo Johnson said that he expected the new Office for Students to work with English universities ‘to encourage a culture of openness and debate and ensure that those with different backgrounds or perspectives can flourish in a higher education environment’. There is little to disagree with there, although some would wonder whether elements of the Prevent strategy might militate against those laudable aims. As it happens we have recently agreed a revised code of practice on free speech (you can read it here), which covers all aspects of free expression and academic freedom. We have to operate within the law, which gives rise to a number of practical constraints relating to inviting visiting speakers amongst other things, and so it is helpful to have guidelines for ensuring that we can maintain the right environment for study and research.

A highlight of the month was the awarding of the Nobel Prize for physics to Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne, the US-based scientists who are leading lights in the detection of gravitational waves that was announced last year. Our own Gravitational Physics group played a key role in the detection of these signals, and indeed in the most recent ground-breaking observation of the collision of two neutron stars in which gravitational waves were correlated with the emission of light for the first time. This is a hugely important and exciting new area of science, and I’m very proud that Cardiff scientists are playing such an important role. In other news, I’m pleased to report that the GW4 Alliance has successfully secured the UK’s first doctoral training programme in freshwater bioscience to address the complex challenges needed to sustain the world’s ecosystems. A £2 million grant from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) will establish the UK’s first centre for doctoral training dedicated to ‘freshwater bioscience and sustainability’. October also saw the opening of a centre dedicated to tackling cybercrime at the University. The Airbus Centre of Excellence in Cyber Security Analytics, based in the School of Computer Science and Informatics, is the first of its kind in Europe, and addresses one of the fastest growing areas of crime, to which any of us can become a victim. Finally in this section, if you are wondering how we are progressing on the various building projects that are part of our Estates Masterplan, including the Centre for Student Life, the Translational Research Facility and Innovation Central, you will find a useful update here.

I hope you will forgive me if I conclude on something of a personal note this month. As I was browsing Blas towards the end of September, an item caught my eye saying that 23 September had been ‘Bi Visibility Day’, on which we raised our Bi Pride flag ‘to show support for bisexual staff and students’. The item came as something of a surprise to me because I didn’t realize there was such a day, or that we had such a flag, or that we had raised it above Main Building. This all seemed rather a pity because I count myself in that category and I wondered how this could all have passed me by. Rather obviously, it was probably because people didn’t know I would identify as bi and so I thought — if this is about visibility — that it might help if they did. I honestly don’t know if it makes any difference, but I do feel that if there is a chance that any of our students or colleagues might feel more supported by my mentioning this, then it’s worth doing. The Blas article includes a link to an enlightening blog entry by our Bi Champion, Jessie Atkinson (introduced by our excellent Chair of Enfys, the Cardiff University LGBT+ staff network, Karen Cooke). I certainly recognized pretty much all of what Jessie writes there about the various issues one faces, but I think it would make interesting reading even if you’re not directly affected.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan